When was the last or the first time that you heard of homeless people making opera? Well, it is very rare, but that’s exactly what’s happening at l’Opéra de Montréal these days. Opera house is collaborating with the local agency that helps people who live on the streets, aiming to create a Street Opera project. A number of formerly itinerant people are participating in the realization of a piece which is supposed to be based on their lives.
All of them are clients of Le Sac à Dos, a day center in downtown Montreal, with 15-suite apartment block for homeless people. José Acquelin and Éric Champagne will write this piece, which will be performed in May next year. All these Sac à Dos participants will take part in building sets and costumes, and putting the show on stage. Singers from the OM’s Atelier Lyrique and theatre-craft professionals will help them set it all up.
Nicole Blouin of Sac à Dos says: “I have always believed that art is not just about making beautiful things, but about social change as well.” She was the one who initiated the development of this idea, linking the opera company with it. Blouin, who studied dance and theater, believes that this creative stage experience could help these participants expand their horizons and involve themselves more into society once again.
“Opera is a total art form that is very good at expressing extreme emotions. People who have experienced homelessness have lived in conditions of extreme stress and high emotion,” says Blouin. One of the participants, Sylvain says: “Opera is a marginal art. We are marginal people. I look forward to experiencing the meeting of these two marginalized elements.”
This project is can be seen as the effort of opera company to reach programs for prospective new audience members and donors. OM director of communications, outreach and education, Pierre Vachon says that the goal is not to sell the huge amount of tickets, but to engage with a marginalized part of the population and to reduce prejudice about the homeless. “What is the meaning of art in our time, how important is it? That’s the discussion we’re having now,” says Vachon.
Blouin was already a member of the opera house when she discovered that similar projects were happening in Great Britain since 2000. Streetwise Opera has worked with around 800 homeless people in five British cities, including London and Manchester. In 2014, Streetwise Opera managed to make some of its former homeless participants to perform on the stage at the Royal Opera House. A community chorus trained and assembled by Peacock’s company performed in Royal Opera House production of Francis Poulenc’s “Les Dialogues des carmélites”.
Vachon thinks that the opera is a mirror of society, where various people and functions must be made to work together to make one great show happen. Blouin added: “These are our fellow citizens. They are coming out of a difficult situation, but they also have an experience of life through hardship from which they can contribute something to the community.”